Business, Community & Government

How People Become Great Leaders

Doris Kearns Goodwin

Lesson time 10:40 min

Looking at the early lives of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and LBJ, Doris discusses whether leaders are born or made and why great leaders have ambition for something bigger than themselves.

Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars

Topics include: Are Leaders Born or Made? · Ambition for the Greater Good


[MUSIC PLAYING] - Leadership's not so easy to define as it turns out. Here I've been studying it for 50 years living with these dead presidents, waking up with them every morning, thinking about them when I go to bed at night. But I think if I had to define it, I would say that what leadership is is the ability to use talent, skills, and emotional intelligence to mobilize people to a common purpose. And hopefully, if you are the kind of leader that we want people to be, that common purpose is to make a positive difference in people's lives. We'll talk about all the fundamental skills of what is needed to be a great leader in more length later on, because I love all these things. But if I had to just say what they were, I would start with humility, empathy, resilience, self-awareness, self-reflection, the ability to create a team where people can question you and argue with your assumptions, and the ability to somehow communicate to people with stories that make the people feel part of what you're saying, and then the most important thing, the willingness to take a risk because the ambition for the greater good has become greater for you than the ambition for yourself. So we can talk about each one of them in more length. But it's almost a template, I think, of human skills that are needed for a great leader to possess. I think some people are born with what we might consider natural leadership abilities. Lincoln is born with an unusual degree of empathy. Even from the time he's a child, he worries about whether or not his friends are dropping hot coals on turtles to make them wriggle. And he says to his friends, that's just wrong. You're hurting somebody. You're hurting an animal. That's what empathy is, to feel the hurt of somebody else. He's also born with a gift for language. And that gift was going to be a great treasured tool when he became president of the United States. Teddy Roosevelt was born with his insatiable curiosity and a photographic memory. He could remember everything he'd read. Think about that, if you had that. I'd love to have that. FDR was born with an optimistic temperament, which was so important given the leadership role that he would step into. And LBJ had an almost unbounded energy. Ridiculous amounts of energy. But to the answer are they born or made, I would say they mostly made themselves leaders. And Teddy Roosevelt wrote an essay that I'd love to tell you about, which is that he said there are two kinds of success in the world. The first is somebody who has a talent that nobody else, no matter how hard they emulate, won't be able to, like Keats writing a great poem or a natural born runner. But he said most success, and he included himself in the second category, comes from people who develop ordinary qualities to an extraordinary degree through hard, sustained work. And that's what really united the leaders that I studied. They worked day in and day out. They're the first person the...

About the Instructor

For more than 50 years, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has studied great American presidents. Now the Pulitzer Prize winner teaches you leadership through the lens of U.S. presidential history. With timeless stories of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and LBJ, Doris shares practical wisdom and a template for honing leadership skills. Manage a crisis, craft a message, and guide a team like extraordinary leaders of the past.

Featured MasterClass Instructor

Doris Kearns Goodwin

Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin teaches you how to develop the leadership qualities of exceptional American presidents.

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